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Was Jeff Sessions Aware of a Proposed Trump-Putin Back Channel?

New details from the House Intelligence Committee suggest the attorney general was privy to a critical episode of the NRA-Russia scandal

NRA/Russia: What Did Jeff Sessions Know?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Capitol Hill this week.

Andrew Harnik/AP

Democrats have published a response to the House Intelligence Committee report on the Trump/Russia nexus, released Friday by the committee’s Republican majority. The minority report offers new details – and unanswered questions – about the role of the NRA as a conduit between Russia and the Trump campaign, raising fresh questions about then-Senator Jeff Sessions’ knowledge of Russian outreach.

The Democratic report affirms and amplifies the findings of Rolling Stone’s investigation into the NRA’s Russia connections. In particular, the Democrats strongly suggest that Putin ally Alexander Torshin was running an op through the NRA: “The Kremlin-linked individual” – Torshin – “appears to have used the group” – the NRA – “to befriend and establish a backchannel to senior Trump campaign associates through their mutual affinity for firearms,” the Democrats write, “a strategy consistent with Russian tradecraft.” (Torshin, a lifetime NRA member, was recently sanctioned by the Treasury Department and can no longer travel to the United States.)

The Democratic report also publishes a full excerpt of an infamous May 2016 email from Paul Erickson to the Trump campaign. (Previously, this email had only been reported in snippets by the New York Times.) Erickson is an NRA- and GOP operative who repeatedly visited a Torshin-backed gun-rights group in Moscow. He later started a mysterious business with Torshin’s protege, Maria Butina, in South Dakota.

The excerpt is illuminating: Erickson addressed the email – which included a proposed meeting between candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin – to Rick Dearborn, then a top Trump campaign staffer. But the full text suggests Sen. Jeff Sessions was directly in the loop. Erickson wrote:

“I’m now writing to you and Sen. Sessions in your roles as Trump foreign policy experts/advisors. […] Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn’t forthcoming under the current administration. And for reasons that we can discuss in person or on the phone, the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true re-set in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.”

Did Sessions, now the attorney general, receive a copy of this email directly? The report’s footnote, sourcing the email, reveals the document came from “Attorney General Jeff Session [sic] Document Production.” Rolling Stone asked for clarification from a spokesperson for Ranking Member Adam Schiff; he replied: “We cannot comment.” 

That this email was found in Sessions’ files is a startling revelation. Sessions previously told House investigators that he did not recall the outreach by Erickson, according to the New York Times. And it may provide new context for why Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation.

The Democratic report also reveals that Dearborn moved Erickson’s message up the chain of command – and amplified when and where Putin hoped to meet with candidate Trump. “Dearborn communicated this request on May 17, 2016 to the highest levels of the Trump campaign, including Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Jared Kushner,” the Democrats write.

Torshin hoped to use the 2016 NRA convention to break the ice, and open a personal line of communication to “someone of high rank in the Trump Campaign,” the report continues. “As explained in Dearborn’s email, such a meeting would provide Torshin an opportunity “to discuss an offer he claims to be carrying from President Putin to meet with DJT.” (“DJT” is a reference to Donald J. Trump.) “They would also like DJT to visit Russia for a world summit on the persecution of Christians at which Putin and Trump would meet.'”

Ultimately, Torshin met the future-President’s son, Donald Jr., at the NRA convention. The Democrats upbraid the majority for “conveniently” concluding there was “no evidence that the two discussed the presidential election.” The Democrats expand: “this relies solely on the voluntary and self-interested testimony of the individual in question… Trump Jr.” The report adds: “The Majority refused multiple requests by the Minority to interview witnesses central to this line of inquiry, including Torshin, Butina, Erickson, and others.”

The Democrats conclude the NRA section of their report with a litany of questions the GOP majority refused to examine, writing that the GOP majority report “ignores significant outstanding questions about individuals who sought to set up this backchannel, including why Torshin and Butina were interested in connecting the Trump campaign to Putin, what they sought to get out of that connection, why they enlisted the support of NRA colleagues, and whether others in the campaign were communicating with Russia through the NRA.”

The Democrats also underscore that Republicans took no interest in getting to the bottom of allegations that Russian money illegally boosted Trump’s candidacy. “The Majority refused to investigate,” Democrats write, “whether Russian-linked intermediaries used the NRA to illegally funnel money to the Trump Campaign, to open lines of communication with or approaches to Trump or his associates, and how those approaches may have informed Russia’s active measures campaign as it unfolded throughout 2016.”

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